T he history of rock and pop is a riotous romance; a noisy, compelling carnival of chaos and creativity. It’s also fast vanishing, seen in the rear-view mirror of a pink Cadillac thundering down Route 66, with its hood down, R&B blaring from the radio, and with no particular place to go.
In Sotheby’s Rock & Roll auction this month, much of this history is represented, to be rediscovered and savored anew. This is a selection of objects that spans decades, continents and eras, from rare Beatles memorabilia to Jimi Hendrix’s feather boa, from a Bob Dylan album with his handwritten notations to Michael Jackson’s infamous red ‘Thriller’ jacket. In total, this auction is a virtual museum of modern music, in all its vibrant, thrilling glory.
The sale hearkens back to an era when rock ’n’ roll was a force of change, a clarion cry for universality (“All you need is love!”), inclusivity (“Come together, right now!”), plurality (“It don’t matter if you’re black or white!”) and sheer abandon (“A wop bop a loo-bop a lop-bam boom!”). It represented an urge to let go, loosen up, dance, dress weird, express yourself and forever, unerringly, prosecute the unceasing fight for the right to party.
Today, the hardy survivors of rock's golden age still sell out stadiums, reissue classic albums, pen reflective memoirs, sell nostalgic merch online, advertise butter on television, and extol healthy lifestyles. They live out their dotage as benevolent national treasures, twinkling stars of the light entertainment firmament they originally set out to smash. And while there is no shortage of new music, the eccentric, impassioned characters who populated the pop of scene of old, are now icons of a bygone age.
So no more John and Yoko crawling into a giant bag to conduct a press conference, nor a Dylan yelling in exasperation at an audience booing him for playing electric blues. No more Bowie, prancing provocatively in a skin-tight catsuit nor Keith Moon detonating his drum kit with explosives. The Sex Pistols are frozen in time, outraging British television audiences, Michael Jackson moonwalks his way into history during a 1983 awards ceremony.
History was made at every turn. Performers knew they had to raise their game with each outing, besting their last sensational appearance or album. The stakes were high - greater impact, or career death. Because as every performer included in this auction knew only too well, from James Brown to Frank Sinatra, The Grateful Dead or Eddie van Halen - you could be as extreme, as noisy and as badly behaved as you liked. You just could never, ever be boring.
In the golden age of pop, fans devoured pre-digital media for news of their heroes. Could the Beatles top ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’? Would Prince’s next LP render ‘Purple Rain’ redundant? Who would Bob Dylan be, the next time we saw him live? The epoch-making records, outlandish clothes, the hair, the irrepressible irresponsibility, and mercurial unpredictability - and that timeless music - are all now consigned to history.
In the Rock & Roll auction, much of this history is documented amongst guitars, signed LPs, posters, clothes and memorabilia. This is a selection of items that spans decades, continents and eras, each imbued with its own vivid sense of place and time.
Dave Grohl's set list from February 1992, when Nirvana's ‘Nevermind’ was topping the Billboard album charts, dates from the period when the band were exploding into the mainstream. Elvis Presley’s traveling Bible, in a leather-bound jacket, memorializes the mother whose death haunted his life. Bob Dylan’s anxious handwriting amends the track listing for a promo copy of his ground-breaking 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (a rare and precious item in this sale, once belonging to his cover co-star and then-lover Suze Rotolo).
Another extraordinary avatar of riotous creativity, Prince, is also here, with an outfit from his era-defining ‘Purple Rain’ tour. And Britain’s most important cultural export of the past 60 years is represented abundantly. Because what would such an auction be, without the Beatles? Here, we find the very beginnings of their existence on vinyl, from a signed copy of 1962's debut single ‘Love Me Do’, up to the jacket Ringo Starr wore in 1995’s ‘Anthology’ television eulogy.
Many of these artefacts are, as artist Michael Rakowitz points out with reference to a lock of David Bowie’s hair, elemental to the very DNA of rock history itself. ‘Just knowing that this lock of hair unlocks the entire timeline of this inimitable artist, should be enormously important’.
Items of clothing that once seemed so outlandish, are now instantly synonymous with their wearers, an immediate visual evocation of a legend. Jimi Hendrix’s pink feather boa, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ jacket and his ‘Billie Jean’ fedora, Madonna’s dress and Prince’s completely outrageous ‘Purple Rain’ outfit are all present, each an integral part of their former owner's history.
Then we have some extraordinary documents; manuscripts, letters, contracts, and posters, that capture the very moments in which the times, were a-changin’. A selection of archive gig posters announce historic shows, immortalized in bold, exciting layouts. Autographed copies of landmark albums offer a chance to own a unique slice of music history, as do the very instruments that made the music - signed guitars, drumsticks, Jimmy Page's violin bow.
A copy of the very first edition of Liverpool music paper 'Mersey Beat', a yellowed palimpsest of gig listings, neighborhood music store advertisements and record reviews from 1961, features a piece of surreal writing by one John Lennon, a friend of the magazine’s editor Bill Harry, entitled “Being A Short Diversion on The Dubious Origins Of Beatles”. A management contract for a bunch of long-haired oiks calling themselves The Rolling Stones, dating from 1965, is an exercise in hopeful ambition, the band having just managed to write their first hit single after years smashing out cover versions of obscure American blues and R&B. Who knows if they will last another year or so, in the cut-throat transatlantic hit parade?
And then, as the 1960s blurred into the 1970s, paths diverged. Pop remained innocent, joyous and fun. Rock grew darker, heavier and more profound (and frequently, preposterous). Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin emerged from the British blues scene a tousled seer in crushed-velvet loon pants, using a bow to play his guitar (both included in this sale). John Lennon ditched his cheery mop top persona for that of a counter-cultural campaigner, with his muse Yoko Ono.
Previously marginalized soul and R&B stars such as James Brown, Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin outgrew the glitz of light entertainment to become figureheads of social change. And by the 1980s, the music industry was a multimedia, glamorous, world-straddling entity, that made Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Van Halen, Metallica and U2 as iconic to kids worldwide from Bangalore to Brooklyn.
This sale covers it all. Look here and marvel at the scope of the story, from the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself who loathed rock & roll at its outset (correctly perceiving his days of dominating the charts coming to an end) to the final flourish of the archetypal rock star, personified in Kurt Cobain. Remember the legends of soul from Smokey to Aretha, from James Brown to BB King. And marvel again at just how great they all were. To paraphrase one late legend, some are dead and some are living but in our lives, we’ve loved them all.